Uchida/Davis/LSO, Barbican


On the London Symphony Orchestra’s website there’s a conversation between pianist Mitsuko Uchida and conductor Colin Davis in which they discuss the Beethoven and Nielsen works they are currently performing at the Barbican.

Apropos Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, Davis says he enjoys the ‘unpremeditated little things that can happen’, while Uchida expatiates on the work’s sheer newness: while the first three concertos operate within the shade of Mozart, the fourth turns him into a distant memory.

Most pianists strive to put their stamp on Beethoven’s revolutionary opening phrase – a series of gentle chords ending in a dying fall – but striving is not what’s required. Sweeping on stage in diaphanous silks, Uchida sat down and let the opening speak for itself with an easy conversationality, and in her first virtuoso flight she continued in the same vein, bringing every gesture into intimate close-up. In her flexible hands the development of the Allegro felt like a revelation, probing harmonic realms which to its first audience in 1806 must have seemed shockingly remote. (No other musical event before or since could compare with that freezing December night in Vienna, when Beethoven premiered this masterpiece along with four others of similar significance.) The magic of this movement lies in the detail of the passage-work, and Uchida’s touch covered its spectrum from sotto voce sweetness to massive percussiveness with unfaltering assurance.

The drama of the Adagio has been likened to Orpheus taming the wild beasts at the entrance to Hades, but what Uchida and Davis did with it was extraordinary. Here there was no sense of a struggle for dominance: the orchestra’s rough interpolations seemed to have no effect on the serene momentum of the piano’s discourse, which continued imperturbably until its sudden explosion into trills and chromatic flourishes. Only in the closing Rondo did real debate break out, with Uchida generating visceral excitement. Taking repeated bows at the end, she was visibly moved, as though for her and Davis this performance had a particular personal significance. For the rest of us, it was an encounter with Beethoven which went way beyond the usual questions of assertiveness and technical prowess: it was about beauty first and last.

Haydn’s Symphony No 98 opened this superb concert, and Nielsen’s ‘The Four Temperaments’ closed it: stand by for the LSO Live CD.